Finding the Road to Self-Respect

The next incident of note – and this one proved key – came in 1935. The previous year had seen the sale of Ron’s first short stories to New York publishers and, effectively, his entrance into the ranks of American popular fiction. Although best known for his tales of high adventure, he also supplied westerns, romances and a number of exceedingly well-wrought detective yarns. Through the course of research for the latter, he eventually interviewed a host of law-enforcement professionals, including police officers, coroners and federal investigators. But plainly most unforgettable was his tour, with fellow author Arthur J. Burks, of the New York State Penitentiary of Sing Sing.

His impressions are recorded in several places, but most notably in a 1938 unpublished manuscript entitled "Excalibur." The first delineation of discoveries that led directly to Dianetics, "Excalibur" stands as the first definitive explanation of survive as the common denominator of all life. That is, however varied was behavior from one life form to another, all life ultimately sought only to survive. (Hence, his later view of ethics as rationality towards the highest level of survival for all things.) But extrapolating from that central revelation are chapters on how the urge towards survival is reflected in government, finance, education, the arts and criminal reform . . . And through his discussion of the latter, he offers a chilling indictment of life and death in Sing Sing.

In the first place, he writes, the prison reforms nothing, and all one learns in a cage is that he has indeed become an animal. In the second place, prison in no way constitutes justice. And, in fact, "There is no man upon the earth with mind enough to dispense justice." Finally, and this in response to a thorough inspection of the electric chair: "The life of each and every man belongs to himself and himself alone. His days on earth are few, his happiness is limited. Against him are all the counts of disease, starvation, failure in business, wrecks, deaths of friends and half a million more.

"To this the state has no right or power to add revenge and call it JUSTICE."

To then drive the point home, he supplies an immensely powerful account of an execution beginning with the placement of the copper cap upon the shaved head and concluding with the attendant physician’s workaday pronouncement, "Okay, he’s stiff." Included among the details: The condemned will invariably glimpse the autopsy tables, concaved to receive the blood and the coffin where his body will rest. The executioner receives three hundred dollars for the killing, but must see to the maintenance of machinery. The force of the jolt quite often snaps the chest strap while the juice continues flowing for as long as twenty minutes. In what amounted to an addendum, he noted in a later conversation, the experience had left him quite repulsed: "We didn’t feel like doing anything for about a week," and then elsewhere concluded imprisonment to be quite antithetical to rehabilitation. Rather, "it breaks men; it finishes them!"

For sometime thereafter, he spoke of these matters only sporadically, as in a revised note for the "Excalibur" manuscript: A man is not necessarily a menace to society simply because he commits a crime. "He becomes a menace only when he has to compensate with dangerousness for his own loss of prestige." By late 1942, however, his ideas on crime and punishment had already begun to assume a workable methodology.

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